In the mid-1990s, a musical called “Rent” took the theater world by storm. A retelling of Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme,” it was an audacious rock ’n’ roll story set in Alphabet City, a gritty East Village neighborhood in New York. It was tinged by tragedy, as the show’s creator, Jonathan Larson, died on the morning of the show’s first off-Broadway preview. It featured a young, multicultural cast that included future stars Idina Menzel, Anthony Rapp, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin and Taye Diggs, and tackled issues of homophobia, AIDS, addiction and family.
It was controversial in some circles, certainly, and as recently as 2012 it sparked protest in Coeur d’Alene when the Lake City Playhouse staged it, generating national headlines.
Still, “Rent” would go on to win four Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize. It was made into a movie featuring much of the original cast. It ran on Broadway for 12 years.
A 20th anniversary tour of this iconic musical comes to the INB Performing Arts Center starting Thursday as part of West Coast Entertainment’s Best of Broadway series. Much has changed in the world since Larson’s show first made a splash. AIDS, while still an international health crisis, has evolved from a death sentence into a long-term chronic disease that can be treated. It’s hardly shocking any more to be gay. And Alphabet City, we were told by the New York Times earlier this fall, is a “stylishly scruffy” place where rents remain relatively affordable. But, as the Tampa Bay Times noted in its review of the touring production in September, “The broader themes don’t need adjustment because they are timeless.”
We reached out to local theater folk, and spoke with an original cast member of “Rent,” to talk about the show and its legacy. Here’s what they said.
Lenny Bart, artistic director, Spokane Civic Theatre: I remember when “Rent” came out, I had recently moved out of Alphabet City – Second Street between Avenue B and C in New York City. Back then, it was still squatters, crack cocaine and lots of abandoned buildings.
“Rent” spoke to me then … of the sacrifices I was making, pursuing an acting career. When it moved to Broadway, 42nd Street hadn’t been completely “Disneyfied” and the Nederlander on 41st Street was off the beaten path and seemed a perfect venue to represent the East Village. This show spoke to a whole generation of artists struggling to stay true to their craft. It speaks to me today as a reminder of the trials and tribulations many people experience as they pursue their goals.
Jadd Davis, artistic director, Coeur d’Alene Summer Theatre: “Rent” is a show that occupies a number of unique tiers in my theater brain. I was first exposed to it in the form of a couple tunes on a mix tape a friend made for me in the late ’90s. Even though I was stage muggle at the time, he thought I’d enjoy musical theater. He was right. “One Song Glory” got worn out on the cassette from all the rewinding.
Fast forward to my sophomore year of college, and I saw the national tour in Spokane. I was still working through how to show real emotion in my post-high-school-athlete days and didn’t really have a scale for the big feels; I was either stoic or shattered. I pretty much ugly cried through all of Act 2 and thoroughly embarrassed my date.
Fifteen or so years later, I’ve seen the show a number of times, and now I have to explain to my students that it was the “Hamilton” of its time. I’m gettin’ old, yo.
“Rent” is a beautiful period piece, visceral in its voice of the end of the century – which felt like the end of the world. As it ages, it’s not become sepia-toned and quaint.
It still gives me the big feels. You probably don’t want to be my date to the show.
Troy Nickerson, Spokane-based theater director who directed “Rent” at Lake City Playhouse in 2012: My story with “Rent” was, there was a time 20 years ago when I was losing people in my life to AIDS. So “Rent,” subconsciously, I avoided it. I never really listened to it, which is crazy because I’m the musical theater dude. After it lost its huge momentum at the beginning, it became the music that all the younger kids around the theater were singing and doing, and it sounded kind of whiny. I didn’t even embrace it then because I didn’t know much about it. Then finally, when an opportunity to direct it came up, I jumped in, and it was one of my most absolute favorite experiences directing I’ve ever had. It’s a brilliant, brilliant piece of theater.
It’s so human, and it’s such a time capsule of moments, of what it was like in the city. It’s beautiful.
Adam Pascal, who played Roger Davis in the original Broadway and West End casts, in the 2005 movie adaption and in the 2009 national tour. (We spoke to Pascal in advance of his Spokane appearance this fall in the national tour of “Something Rotten.”):
It seems like a lifetime ago, yet it seems like yesterday. … It’s such an amazing testament to the show itself that is has such longevity and still connects with people after all of these years.